Sixteen points – finally a team has hit that magical figure in the 2020 edition of the Indian Premier League. It is the key, nay, the pathway to that next step – knockouts – and a chance at glory. That the first team to do is Mumbai Indians isn’t any surprise. Never mind their four losses, the defending champions have been the best outfit on display.
There is a consistency inherent in their game plan and the way they play. Despite Rohit Sharma’s injury and the uncertainty about his availability, Mumbai haven’t let their guard down. Could the same be said about any other franchise with an Indian superstar leading them? Where would Chennai Super Kings be without MS Dhoni? Wouldn’t Royal Challengers Bangalore fall apart without Virat Kohli?
Arguably, Mumbai are the most well-oiled machinery in the IPL. In a way, they are like Chennai before the 2016-17 two-year ban. Mumbai are at the peak of their cycle with the current squad, wherein most names are settled into their roles. Consistency is key herein – they have only used 13 players in 12 matches so far. If one is rested (James Pattinson for Nathan Coulter Nile) or gets injured, another just steps in to plug the gap, like Ishan Kishan has done in Rohit Sharma’s absence. In football parlance, it is defined as squad depth and it is the bedrock of multiple title-winning teams.
And so, Mumbai Indians have taken yet another step towards a potential, unprecedented fifth IPL title. Mathematically they haven’t qualified just yet – another four teams can also reach 16 points. But the difference in Mumbai’s NRR (+1.186 in 12 matches) and Kolkata Knight Riders’ NRR (-0.479 in 12 matches) allows them some respite – it is too big a bridge to cross for Kolkata, if five teams finish on 16 points. Technically then, Mumbai have qualified for the knockouts and now it is about finishing in the top-two spots.
This, though, isn’t about Mumbai’s qualification. It isn’t about Royal Challengers Bangalore messing up their chance to finish top of the table either. There are certain weaknesses that any opposition would look to exploit against Virat Kohli’s side. The middle order’s lack of power hitting, for example, especially after you get AB de Villiers out. On Wednesday night, they lost four wickets in the span of 12 deliveries, including de Villiers. That collapse meant Bangalore could only finish with a sub-par score.
This, then, is about how easily Mumbai chased that 165-run target down. The last image from that run-chase is of Surya Kumar Yadav, helmet off, and face newly shaven but beaming in the joyful sweat of success, nodding to the dressing room, pointing to self and then to the crease. There was no way Mumbai were losing this whilst he was at the crease.
We have talked about him before – 'SKY' had smacked 79 not out against Rajasthan Royals earlier in the season and fashioned another simple chase for Mumbai. It can be stressed here again that Yadav is no longer the swashbuckling free-hitting batsman he once was. In his earlier IPL stint with Kolkata Knight Riders, that was very much his role – attack and attack.
Ever since his move to Mumbai Indians, he has been assimilated in their batting line-up differently. There is responsibility on his shoulders at number three, for the team management identifies his skill to not just attack, but also his fortitude to build an innings – waiting for that opportune moment when to upshift the batting gears and change the situation in Mumbai’s favour.
Let it be said here that Mumbai’s batting line-up isn’t pivoted around Rohit Sharma. Ever since he moved to the opener’s role permanently, both Sharma and Mumbai have been liberated of their inter-dependency. This, in turn, has allowed other batsmen to grow in their individual, well-defined roles. And Yadav was assigned that pivotal number three role long ago, and he has made it his own. Nay, that’s an understatement – Mumbai’s batting now revolves around Yadav at number three.
It is a big claim yes, but look at the manner Mumbai’s batting line-up works. From the openers’ slam-bang starts, to the explosive finishing touches provided by Hardik Pandya and Kieron Pollard, Yadav plays the anchoring guide for their innings. To make sure he doesn’t get undue pressure to maintain scoring rate, sometimes they even promote Krunal Pandya as pinch-hitter if the second wicket falls early (in the first half of the innings).
Yadav is supposed to play that binding connect between the top and middle order, and he has settled well into that role for Mumbai. Consider his knock against Bangalore on Wednesday, and it becomes apparent – get a start, become the mainstay and finish things off. At the halfway mark, Mumbai were at 70-2, with Yadav batting on 22 off 18 balls. When Saurabh Tiwary fell in the 11th over, out came Krunal so as to take the scoring pressure off him and allowing for building a base for Hardik-Pollard to launch from.
To his credit, Yadav took matters into his own hands. 57 runs came off the next 25 balls he faced in Mumbai’s remaining innings spanning nine overs. While he accelerated in Krunal’s company, the real push came after his dismissal – five fours and a six, but equally important, he ran 13 across singles and doubles thus making sure Hardik was able to do his thing. Attack, rotate strike, attack – Yadav has grown accustomed to this formula and Mumbai’s chase was never really in any danger.
At this juncture, the obvious selection debate arises in this conversation. When the Indian squads for the Australian tour were announced, there was abundant confusion surrounding Rohit Sharma’s fitness. But there was also equal shock about Yadav’s omission. For a brief moment, you can understand the logic. He plays a top-order anchor role for Mumbai, akin to what Kohli and Shreyas Iyer do for India in the T20I arena. Surely, he cannot displace them.
But it is flawed thinking. There is nobody who can displace those two names, when fully fit, for years to come. Does that mean the selectors should stop looking at other possible solutions? In the current context, if Rahul continues to open and keep wickets in T20Is, India still have the opportunity to play around with number five and six slots.
With the top-order locked out, it is precisely where Yadav can fit in. Sanju Samson is in the running, Manish Pandey too, and with Hardik not bowling as yet, he plays as a pure batsman. Surely, in an enlarged three-format touring party, the selectors could have accommodated an extra batsman to allow for some experimentation lower down the order.
By not giving Yadav a ticket to Australia, the selectors have missed a trick as India look to restart their T20 World Cup preparations.
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